Using Big Data to Save the Planet

Global hotspots, like Kenya during its most recent elections, could see a reduction in violence thanks to analytics.

Big Data: tool of international diplomacy?

The U.S. State Department’s Conflict and Stabilization Operations (CSO) office is reportedly using an analytical toolset to drill deep into the reasons behind conflicts around the world. “We are about breaking and interrupting, stopping and preventing atrocities and destabilizing violence, for the good of the people in the countries where we work, as well as the good of the American people,” Jerry White, the CSO’s deputy assistant secretary for partnerships and learning, told CNN. (He’s also a Nobel laureate, just by the by.)

The CSO’s data efforts rely in part on “Senturion,” an analytics tool that the State Department once used to forecast how the U.S. invasion of Iraq would progress; in that conflict, the software turned out to be eerily accurate, down to predicting the behavior of certain quasi-political factions. Now the CSO uses it for a number of geopolitical hotspots, including Syria.

“In the case of Syria, we look at trends, where the business leaders gather, what they talk about, where are the religious leaders,” White told CNN. “We follow sermons, political and religious statements, public meetings, statements in commerce and business areas.” Much of the CSO’s dataset comes from electronic signals and social networks, along with economic data; the output from that analysis can give analysts and diplomats a (hopefully) clear picture of what’s happening on the ground in particular countries, and adjust policy accordingly. Whether that means providing concrete resources, or simply deploying assets to adjust the local “narrative” in a different direction, in an open question.

According to a one-year progress report issued by the CSO earlier this year, the office focused 80 percent of its efforts on Burma, Honduras, Kenya and Syria. (Work has also been ongoing in 15 other countries, including Afghanistan and Libya.) In Syria, the CSO is devoted to supporting what the report refers to as “strengthening the unarmed opposition,” which evidently means developing “civilian leadership capacity” and enabling the rebels to “build mass communications and improve internal and external communications networks.”

In Kenya, the CSO has been working to curb violence related to the recent elections, including the setup of an early-warning network in targeted hotspots. The report indicates that the CSO relies on DARPA’s Integrated Crisis Early Warning System, which scans millions of news stories to identify conflict trends, in order to gain insights into where violence may occur.

The CSO isn’t the only organization applying data analytics to making the world’s trouble spots a little safer. During those Kenyan elections, Ushahidi used data to create a map that traced ethnic violence in real time; other firms are relying on crowd-sourcing and data analytics to help track refugees or even the Lord’s Resistance Army.

 

Image: meunierd/Shutterstock.com

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